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Hi guys! As promised in my last nutrition post, How to: Read the Nutrition Facts Label, the next topic I’m going to cover here today is How to: Read the Ingredients List (and what to look out for). Like before, there’s a handy infographic at the bottom that you can save as a reminder for the next time you go shopping!

The ingredients list is typically located under or next to the Nutrition Facts Label on the back of any packaged food. Items on the list are presented in order of weight, meaning that your food will contain a greater amount of the first ingredient than the last on the list. So, if sugar or salt is listed as the first ingredient in your food, it’s probably best to find a healthier option (or at least not to consume this product all the time)! Another good rule of thumb is to look for products with ingredients lists that are no longer than 2 or 3 lines; more than this signifies that the food is highly processed (this of course will vary depending on the size of the package, but if you’re seeing ingredients lists with many, many items, it’s best to avoid).

Ultimately, the purpose of the list is to tell you, the consumer, exactly what your food contains. Seems straight forward, right? Well, not exactly. Oftentimes, manufacturers and food companies will use different terminology for items that health-conscious consumers are trying their best to avoid, such as sugar, sodium, or trans fats. Why do they do this? To trick you into thinking that their food is healthy, so that you purchase it, and so that they make a profit. By the way, I am by no means saying that ALL companies do this; there are many food companies that have the consumer’s best interest and health in mind, but there are equally as many in which profit is their number one (or only) priority. 

Below are some of the main things you should look out for when navigating the ingredients list:

  1. Different names for sugar: high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), corn syrup, barley malt syrup, evaporated cane juice, agave nectar, brown rice syrup, cane syrup, dextrose, maltose, fructose, sucrose…the list goes on. Look for anything that ends in “-ose” or “syrup” – those are all added sugars.
  2. Different names for salt: sodium benzoate, monosodium glutamate (MSG), sodium nitrite, baking soda, disodium phosphate, etc. Look for the words “soda,” “sodium,” or “Na” (the chemical name for sodium). Did you know that 75% of the sodium most Americans consume is from processed foods, NOT from the salt shaker?
  3. Trans fat: Any food that claims to be “trans fat free” (or the label will say 0 grams of trans fat) may actually contain up to 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. If the package has more than one serving, this can add up. Be sure to look for the words “partially hydrogenated oils” in the ingredients list, which signifies that trans fats are present.
  4. Whole grains: if a product, such as bread, claims to be “whole grain,” be sure to check the ingredients label. Often products are marketed as whole grain, but only contain a small percentage of them. If the first item in the ingredients list contains the word “whole” (ex. whole wheat flour, whole oats), it is likely that the product is predominantly whole grain. Other whole grain ingredients include quinoa, brown rice, wild rice, oatmeal, millet, bulgur, and buckwheat (these are all naturally whole grains). If you see the words “enriched wheat flour” or “wheat flour” as the first ingredient, even if the next ingredient is “whole,” that product is mostly white flour (meaning, not whole). Don’t be tricked by the color of the product either; just because a bread is brown does not guarantee that it is a whole grain bread!

Remember, many of the ingredients lists out there are purposely designed to trick you into thinking a food is healthier than it is. I hope that these 5 points will clarify confusing terms and help you make healthier decisions the next time you’re at the grocery store!

reading ingredients list

This post may contain affiliate links. Please see my disclosure policy.